Although daily cases of Covid in China are near all-time highs, some cities are taking steps to loosen testing requirements and quarantine rules as the country looks to make its zero-COVID policy more targeted amid a sharp economic slowdown and public frustration that has boiled over into unrest.
Beijing residents on Saturday cheered the removal of COVID-19 testing booths while Shenzhen said it would no longer require commuters to present test results to travel, as an easing of China’s virus curbs gathered pace.
Many testing booths in Beijing, as well as Shenzen, have been shut, as the capital stops demanding negative test results as a condition to enter places such as supermarkets and prepares to do so for subways from Monday. Many other venues, including offices, still require testing.
“This should have been taken away earlier!,” said one commentator at a booth. “Banished to history,” said another. At some of the remaining booths, however, residents grumbled about hour-long queues for the tests due to the closures.
Three years after COVID emerged in central China, the nation has been a global outlier with a zero-tolerance approach of lockdowns and frequent testing. The authorities say the measures are needed to save lives and avoid overwhelming China’s healthcare system.
China began tweaking its approach last month, urging localities to become more targeted. Initial reactions, however, were marked with confusion and even tighter lockdowns as cities scrambled to keep a lid on rising cases.
Then a deadly apartment fire last month in the far western city of Urumqi sparked dozens of protests against COVID curbs in over 20 cities in a wave unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
China is set to further announce a nationwide easing of testing requirements as well as allowing positive cases and close contacts to isolate at home under certain conditions, people familiar with the matter told Reuters this week.
Officials have only recently begun to downplay the dangers of Omicron, a significant change in messaging in a country where fear of COVID has run deep.
Many analysts say they still do not anticipate a significant reopening until at least after March, as China must first achieve results in a just-launched vaccination drive targeting the elderly.
Estimates for how many deaths China could see if it pivots to a full reopening have ranged from 1.3 million to over 2 million, though some researchers said the death toll could be reduced sharply if there was a focus on vaccination.
“The alternative of letting the virus spread widely before more of the elderly are vaccinated and healthcare capacity has been ramped up would result in a higher death rate than in many Asian countries that reopened earlier, undermining China’s zero-COVID success,” they said.
China reported 32,827 daily local COVID-19 infections on Saturday, down from 34,772 a day earlier. As of Friday, China had reported 5,233 COVID-related deaths and 331,952 cases with symptoms.